It happens far too often. A few weeks ago my non-Christian friend shared with me a story about someone she knows who was turned away from a local church and asked to leave the property because it “looked bad” that she was crying in front of their building.
Of course, the woman’s daughter was missing, she was close to losing her apartment due to HUD restrictions limiting her ability to care for her grand daughter, and she needed help with food and clothes for this little one.
Luckily, this elderly woman, with her grandchild in tow, ended up down the street at a secular organization which fed her grand child, referred her to a food bank, and even put some cash in her hand while the volunteers behind the counter scrambled to find clothing for the little girl and a dedicated social worker to help her with housing needs.
What’s wrong with this picture? How could the woman with the hungry grandchild be turned away by the people who profess to follow the guy who said “Whatever you’ve done for the least of these you’ve done it to me”?
And why is it that this same woman found compassion and love in the arms of people who don’t follow Christ?
It’s almost a modern day Good Samaritan story, isn’t it?
Except that it’s not a story. It’s real.
So, how is it that Christians can be so insensitive and mean? What’s going on here?
In this short series of articles to follow, I hope to shed some light on this troubling phenomenon.
Honestly, I believe there are a variety of reasons for this aberrant behavior, the first one being that Christians in America define themselves by the things they believe, not by their attitudes or behaviors.
Reason #1 – Christians in America are defined by doctrines.
This idea goes all the way back to the third century when Emperor Constantine was allowed to define what it meant to be a Christian. Before this, the Christian church (as evidenced by the New Testament writings and early church practice) defined Christianity as a way of living that mirrored the life of Jesus. This is why Paul the Apostle was so adamant that the early Christians not associate with those who called themselves Christians but refused to actually obey His teachings.
“But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.” (1 Cor. 5:11)
Ironically, in this same passage, Paul makes a point that he’s not talking about non-believers who behave this way. Not at all:
“…not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world.” (1 Cor. 5:10)
Somehow Christians in America have gotten this backwards. They refuse to associate with “worldly” people who don’t act Christian, but have a very high tolerance for people within the Church who don’t act like Jesus.
But it’s not our tolerance for this behavior that has led us to this unsettling situation. It’s our definition of who a Christian really is.
When Constantine showed up and helped to end the persecution of Christians with the edict of Milan in 313, many (but not all) Christians hailed him as a hero, and even welcomed his influence in the affairs of the church. Possibly this was because Constantine granted their leaders tax exemptions and put many of them on the Roman payroll, perhaps?
At any rate, Constantine did what no Emperor had ever done before – he influenced the church to codify a statement of orthodoxy – a set of core beliefs – that defined what “true” Christianity was all about.
Before this the early church disagreed on a number of doctrinal points, and even freely dis-fellowshipped themselves from those who taught heresy (as they defined it). But, until Constantine officially declared what made Christians “Christian” the only criteria was a simple faith in Christ and a sincere desire to put His teachings into practice. Granted, some might disagree with you on a few points of doctrine, but they wouldn’t have killed you for it. We have Constantine to thank for that eventual practice.
Fast forward a few hundred years and nothing much has changed. Pastors and churches are still exempt from taxes, they are still useful to propagate the policies of the Empire, and Christianity is still defined as an agreement with a set of core doctrines.
This is why you can now call yourself a Christian and disobey Christ’s command to care for the orphan and the widow. Because if you have agreed with the Statement of Faith (the virgin birth, the deity of Christ, the Trinity, the Resurrection, etc.) then you are absolutely a Christian, and your actions are not taken into account.
Of course, this is in direct contradiction to Jesus’ words that:
“…they will know that you are my disciples (followers) if you love one another.” (John 13:35)
“Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me.” (John 14:21)
“Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching.” (John 14:23-24).
So, basically, as long as you take a new believer’s class or agree with a detailed “Statement of Faith” you’ll be considered a Christian by almost every Church in America today. In spite of the fact that you may not follow Jesus, obey Jesus, or have any intention of learning what Jesus commanded His followers to do.
And for the record: Following Jesus’s commands means keeping that first one: “Love one another as I have loved you.”
So, if you can turn away someone in need who comes to you begging for help, you might not be a Christian. Or, as the Apostle John puts it:
“If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?” (1 John 3:17)
Christians in America desperately need to redefine themselves as people who are doing their best to put the words of Jesus into action. Otherwise, we’ll be left with a Church that looks and acts nothing like Jesus.
[END PART ONE]
Keith Giles was formerly a licensed and ordained minister who walked away from organized church 11 years ago, to start a home fellowship that gave away 100% of the offering to the poor in the community. Today, He and his wife live in Meridian, Idaho, awaiting their next adventure.